The big kick-off is a blackout for some

David Hellier
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WITH the football season starting in earnest tomorrow, ESPN, the Disney-owned broadcaster, is proudly trumpeting its coverage on all four pay television platforms, BSkyB, Virgin Media, BT Vision and Top-Up TV.<br /><br />ESPN, which has taken over the rights to 46 live Premier League matches from the now defunct Setanta, agreed deals with all the main players in pay television just in time for the big kick-off.<br /><br />But, just as in previous years, both Top-Up TV and BT Vision will be without the lion&rsquo;s share of live football, which is on Sky Sports 1 &amp; 2, channels that will not be offered to those two platforms.<br /><br />Offering only ESPN and not Sky Sports is like offering a visitor to a top notch restaurant a sumptuous starter but not the main course or desert. Let alone the coffee and liqueurs.<br /><br />At BT Vision potential subscribers&rsquo; appetites are whetted by claims they can watch many more Premier League matches during the season. But these are only being broadcast after the event.<br /><br />Only ESPN&rsquo;s 46 matches are actually being broadcast live.<br /><br />Experts have argued that, were Top-up TV and BTVision offering the Sky channels and Virgin Media were able to offer them at a cheaper price, they would attract one million new subscribers to the pay television sports market and one million subscribers might quit BSkyB&rsquo;s service to subscribe to buy pay television from one of its rival platform operators.<br /><br />So what&rsquo;s wrong with those running BT Vision and Top-Up television? Why aren&rsquo;t they offering their consumers what everybody says they want.<br /><br />Top-Up TV chief David Chance, a former Sky stalwart, says he tried doing a deal with the satellite broadcaster but Sky made it clear there was not a deal to be done.<br /><br />BT Vision has tried the same thing but can&rsquo;t get Sky to offer the channels at what it sees is an economic price. So frustrated is BT Vision&rsquo;s head of retail Gavin Patterson, an ardent Liverpool fan, that he has a sky dish and service at his home in order to watch more football live.<br /><br />Sky does a brilliant job at covering football. Of that, there&rsquo;s not much doubt.<br /><br />But its dominance in the pay television market &ndash; it has 9 million subscribers and owns most of the attractive premium content &ndash; means it either refuses to supply its content to competing pay television retailers or offers it on uneconomic terms.<br /><br />The industry regulator Ofcom recently came down against Sky and concluded it must be forced to whole-sale its premium content to its rivals at a cheaper price than it currently does to Virgin Media. This is known in the trade as the &ldquo;wholesale must offer obligation.&rdquo;<br /><br />Right now we&rsquo;re in the middle of a public consultation process that continues until 18 September, meaning that whatever is decided it will be too late to affect the start of the footie season and could well be delayed by Sky objections.<br /><br />But by next season, or even shortly after christmas, we might be into an entirely different ball game if Ofcom sticks to its guns. Both BT Vision, with its 430,000 subscribers, and Top-Up TV, which provides pay services to Freeview, would be moving up to a higher league altogether.<br /><br /><br /><br /><strong>&bull; Allister Heath is away</strong>